Reported from Bangkok, September 14, 2004
Whacky Version of Polo Produces Jumbo Fun
Not Fast, Not Furious, but Whacky Sport of Elephant Polo Produces Jumbo Fun
The Associated Press
BANGKOK, Thailand, Sept. 12, 2004 With a clash of mallets and the stomping of jumbo feet that shook the earth, the game was under way. Tense commands were shouted by pith helmeted players tied firmly to their two-ton mounts. Very soon there was a muddle in the middle. The beasts collided and the ball disappeared in a forest of elephantine legs, raising some dust and much laughter.
We had just witnessed a classic scrum in the whacky sport of elephant polo.
It is not fast, it is not furious, yet it is as exhilarating and as elitist as the equine sport that inspired the jumbo version.
"It is almost like horse polo but in a very slow motion. But I can tell you it is much more difficult," said retired Indian army Col. Raj Kalaan, a former horse polo player who is now a member of the Chivas Regal elephant polo team.
Kalaan is among the 55 players including three former All Blacks rugby players of New Zealand, three Thai transvestites who call themselves Screwless Tuskers and professional horse polo experts who gathered in the Thai beach resort town of Hua Hin this week for the annual King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament.
The 14-team round-robin tournament ends Sunday with the final between Thailand's Mobile Easy and Australia's Sandalford Winery, who defeated two-time defending champion Mercedes Benz team on Saturday.
Kalaan, who trains horses in his farm outside New Delhi, admits that some people may think of elephant polo as a quirky sport. "But it is as competitive as any other sport. Once you are out in the middle you want to win. It not always easy," said Kalaan, a former presidential bodyguard and battle tank commander.
No question that elephant polo is more difficult that horse polo. Try hitting an object no bigger than a tennis ball while perched atop a behemoth with a 6-foot (2-meter) long bamboo hammer, or getting your lumbering steed to stop in full stride and turn it around when you miss the ball as players often do.
Connecting with the ball is no guarantee of a goal. After all, a ball can only go as far as the opponent elephant's frame blocking the goal post.
"Elephants are the smartest animals I have seen. They really understand that the ball needs to go or not go into the goal," said Oliver Winter, captain of the Mercedes Benz team. "Sometimes I think they enjoy the game more than we do."
Elephants, which once were the workhorses of Asia's myriad armies and later beasts of burden in the now-banned logging industry, have lost virtually all usefulness in the modern age. Most domesticated elephants are now reduced to begging on the streets. Winter and Kalaan say that using them for sports keeps their intelligent brains stimulated.
Unlike horse polo, the elephant is not controlled by the one wielding the mallet but by a mahout, or handler who sits on the animal's neck and directs its movements.
Younger elephants tend to be quicker and more agile in making a U-turn or backing up. But they also tend to be naughtier, and are known to pick up the ball in the middle of the game with their trunks and make off -- a foul.
The game is played on a a pitch measuring 100 meters by 60 meters (100 yards by 60 yards), which is roughly one-third the size of a horse polo field. A game comprises two 7-minute halves, or chukkas, with a 15-minute interval. Three elephants form a team.
The rules of the game have been drafted by the World Elephant Polo Association, which was set up in 1982 to stage annual games in Nepal. Since then elephant polo tournaments have also been played in Sri Lanka. Thailand joined the ranks by hosting the inaugural King's Cup tournament in 2001 to raise funds for conservation of its 1,500 wild and 2,500 domesticated elephants.
"When we started ... we had just six teams and it was more of a weekend knock-round than a tournament," said Christopher Stafford, vice president of Anantara hotels and resorts, which organizes the annual jamboree.
"Now, three years later, we have 14 teams plus a waiting list ... and the tournament is ranked as the sixth largest event on the Thai tourism calendar. Next stop the Asian games!"
On the web: www.thaielepolo.com
photo credit and caption: Thai transvestites from the team "Screwless Tuskers" (wearing pink) battle against the "DBS Bank Ladies" (wearing white) Sunday, Sept. 12, 2004, in a match at the King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Hua Hin, Thailand. Sunday was the final day of the 14-team round-robin tournament in the annual event. The DBS Bank Ladies defeated the Screwless Tuskers 2-0 in the match. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)